Scott Langille

How to Go Your Own Way (Part 1)

MIT's entire undergraduate and graduate program is almost fully available online for free. So why doesn't everyone just complete any university degree that they want on their own?

While asking students about what keeps them in school, I often hear about three benefits that make university worthwhile for them:

  1. Structure — curricula, deadlines, grades, social accountability, and sunk costs all keep you on track.
  2. Community — you make lifelong friends and connections that will help in your career.
  3. Status — what your parents, peers, employers, and the government think of your degree.

Each benefit of university is becoming increasingly possible to find on your own, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

Structure is where most people fail: they don't take learning outside of school seriously enough to complete anything substantial on their own. If you are going to pursue self-directed learning, however, I don't think that you want to fully replicate university's structure. University is not optimized for actual learning. Exams and grades often measure knowledge rather than improvement in ability. And if you have a curious thought that doesn't fit into the curriculum, you often don't get to explore it.

The community that university provides is hard to find anywhere else. Where else should a high school graduate go to make friends and connections that will benefit them for the years to come? I wouldn't want to miss out on being part of a group of thousands of 20-something-year-olds from different backgrounds all on one campus. In reality, most students only interact with a few dozen people and their conversations primarily cover 3 topics: grades & exams, internships, and dating.

The social status provided by a university degree—particularly in STEM fields—is extremely difficult to reproduce on your own. Most employers receive far too many applicants, so they ignore most people without a degree. A degree is a pretty strong signal that an employee is smart and hard-working enough to be a decent employee. College-graduated parents also pressure their children to go through the same rigour that they did. Why would they want their children to be "less educated" than them? Being a "student" is a pass to try stuff out for 4 years, even if it's an expensive one.

In order to go your own way, you'll need to set out on a path that provides the structure, community, and status of a degree. It could save you $100K+ and a lot of time.

Next I'll explore how I would structure a self-directed learning path to reduce risk.